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The Empathy Gap: Why Remote Work Makes it Harder for Leaders to Connect With Employees

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.
Employees Want Empathy In The Workplace

In a recent video workshop on Work-Life Balance, several participants shared some of their struggles in maintaining their workplace professionalism while dealing with their less-than-perfect work environments. Until that moment, the two participants looked like their co-workers in the Zoom Gallery View.- A headshot cut right below their shoulders.  But, when they zoomed out – everything changed.

As the first participant changed the camera angle, she revealed that her office away from her office was the top of her bed.

Instead of sitting in a chair, she sat crisscross style in what looked like a less-than-ergonomic position.  When the other colleague pulled back her camera, it revealed that the participant was sharing her workspace – her couch- with her 14-year-old son, who was sitting on the opposite end doing his school work.

For the empathetic person – the person who can imagine themselves in those situations – those dramatic reveals instantaneously altered the perception of how their colleagues were coping.

At its core, that’s what empathy is all about putting yourself in another person’s shoes. In other words, empathy is the ability to perceive and interpret what another person is feeling or maybe even thinking.

At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader for an institutional “flavor of the month club,” it does seem that employees have fallen head over heels with empathy. It’s not as if empathy, aka “The Big E,” is a new-fangled concept or a far-off planet that was just discovered by a high-speed telescope.

Empathy is as old as humankind. It’s just that it’s not exactly a trait that businesses have vigorously invested in.  If the data in the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy study is correct, employees and their CEOs view empathy quite differently. It’s as if they are in two different galaxies –far, far, apart.

According to the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study – which was conducted before the pandemic, 74% of employees said they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer.

On the other hand, the study found that executives are “unaware of what employees value from empathy.” According to the survey:

  • Employees believe empathy creates a better environment to work in, which increases their output and can reduce turnover.
  • CEOs believe empathy improves the bottom line, essentially focusing on the financial result instead of the day-to-day setting of their workplace.

In addition, there is a wide gap in how employees and CEOs view the empathy level in their organizations.

  • Only 48% of employees believe companies as a whole are empathetic, versus 68% of CEOs.
  • 91% of CEOs say their own company is empathetic, but only 68% of employees agree.
  • 45% of employees view CEOs in general as empathetic— representing a four-year low—versus 87% of CEOs.

While this survey was conducted in the early months of 2020, it showed a somewhat troubling trend – the value of empathy appears to have stalled in CEOs’ minds, following five years of a steady increase. For instance, in the 2019 study, 72 percent of CEOs said the state of workplace empathy needs to change, a 15-point increase over the previous two years.

The irony, of course, is that given the pandemic, which was not a factor in this survey, many experts say the “Big E” should be the front and center of every executive’s leadership skills.

The NIHCM, National Institute of Health Care Management, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to transforming health care through evidence and collaboration, says reported symptoms of anxiety in the workplace tripled from 2019 to 2020– increasing from 8.1% to 25.5%.  In other words, one out of every four employees is experiencing anxiety, and 55% say they are not comfortable confiding in anyone at work about their struggles.

Given employees’ reluctance to share their emotional well-being, it emphasizes an executive’s value who exhibits empathy as their superpower. Without empathy, a leader may look at the employee via their Zoom video panel and assume everything is okay. The empathetic leader needs to see beyond that – to the bedroom that is doubling as an office and to the couch shared with family members.

Remote Working Is Not Conducive for An Empathetic Environment

The pandemic has made it challenging for even the most gifted empathetic colleague to help a suffering colleague. People who are empathetic pick up on the body language, verbal cues, and basic changes in a person’s overall demeanor. Those cues are hard to ferret out by looking at a video frame on a Zoom call—however, it’s not impossible.

  1. Try holding a daily check-in where team members share two things: something that went well at work the day before and something personal that happened.  Initially, some employees may be hesitant to share personal things, but as the team leads and co-workers start sharing, more team members are likely to share.  Over time, this verbal sharing will help everyone feel more connected and invested with their team members. From sharing how their four-year-old colored all over the living room walls to how they mastered a 26KG kettlebell deadlift, these tiny moments become the glue that strengthens the team.
  2. Share your own vulnerability and challenges with remote working- whether it’s young children, a frustrating Wi-Fi connection, or feelings of isolation; allowing others to know you have these feelings establishes a safe zone for them to share their vulnerabilities.
  3. Patience is a virtue. If an employee seems distracted or misses a deadline, tee up your communication with them about the issue with, “I noticed you didn’t upload the PowerPoint for this week’s presentation.  Can I do anything to help?”
  4. Celebrate barking dogs and cameo appearances by children.  While these interruptions would be considered “unprofessional” in the workplace, when employees are juggling work and family simultaneously, they need reassurances that their less-than-ideal working conditions are not a reflection of their professionalism. Expecting these interruptions not to occur is not only unrealistic but also creates stress. A clip of a weather person went viral because her infant son walked in front of the camera and clung to her leg as she was on air. Instead of ignoring him, she did what any mother would do, She picked him up, comforted him looked at the camera, and shared, “he’s walking now.” Instead of being unprofessional, it was the exact opposite.
  5. Develop ways to have fun as a team, and share funny memes and video clips – the types of things people would share if they were in the same office.

The pandemic has created new challenges for maintaining empathy and connection between leaders and employees in remote environments. However, with some creative strategies like daily check-ins, vulnerability sharing, and patience, leaders can continue demonstrating that they care. The most critical element is mindset shift – accepting that work-life boundaries are blurred and that glimpses into each others’ personal lives humanize us. Embracing imperfection with compassion, humor, and grace will build trust and loyalty that lasts long after we return to office life. The “new normal” requires a new playbook, but with empathy at the core, we can write it together, page by page.